Nonprofits are Messy, So We Get Our Hands Dirty.
“How should I list your title?” he asked. Oh man, what a question.
To be honest, I have wrestled with this one. My title? I’m technically City of Light’s founder. I’m also the lead consultant. I work on strategic planning, coaching executives, designing board trainings, re-working processes, developing rubrics, and even occasionally designing websites or writing a grant or two. Where your typical consultant gathers some facts and makes recommendations, I can often be found elbows deep in the work of organizational development. And that makes City of Light an oddball in the consulting world.
Peter Block’s book “Flawless Consulting” states that consultants are called upon for their expertise, their perspective, their wisdom. The consulting bible is firm on this: Consultants do not get their hands dirty.
I’ll be honest. The idea of someone approaching me like a guru at the top of a mountain was a heady one! And I’ve got the credentials to back up the consultant model. But that idea just doesn’t work in the world of small nonprofits. And while it’s a model that has existed for decades, I’m just not sure it’s how adults best learn.
When I was studying the science of skill building, one model rose above the rest: “I do, you watch; we do together; you do, I watch.” In this model, the person with knowledge gets the chance to model a skill, then to help the learner try twice in a safe environment. The alternative, pure-consulting model would be, “You attempt; I shout instructions from across the room; You attempt again; I criticize.” This is a recipe for disaster.
We decided early that the stakes were high-- that our clients were working on socially important causes and their failure could mean the failure of things that mattered. Kids reading. Human trafficking victims escaping. Animals not becoming extinct.
And so we designed this model, a new one, and Peter Block and his colleagues may not approve. We believe that the best way to support a nonprofit is to surround it with services to help it communicate better, to plan better, and to lead itself better. We believe that providing expertise can only help with some of that. So we also provide access to skilled team members who can create assets for young nonprofits: we write grants, design logos, create websites, and then we train the team to use what they’ve created.
What we do differently is the critical piece of the puzzle: We build the bicycle, with training wheels, so you can ride it. Then we teach you how. Then we take off the training wheels. Or maybe you do! The typical consultant would never pick up a wrench.
That’s just not our style.